It Don’t Worry Me is the older, more sober kin of Peter Biskind’s over praised but amusing Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Where that earlier book viewed the ‘Movie Brat’ generation of 1970s American film directors as a collection of maladjusted cocaine and sex addicts, Gilbey’s benevolent eye overlooks the excesses of the personal lives of those involved to concentrate on the work.
It sounds simple enough, but Gilbey is talking, in part, about those films which changed the very nature of Hollywood and, by extension, of subsequent writing about Hollywood. How many books have you read that insist on discussing the likes of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) in aesthetic terms, rather than in breathless reference to grosses and gossip?
Gilbey doesn’t particularly rate Star Wars, much preferring Lucas’ earlier THX 1138 (1971). Yet even in discussing a film that he admires he demonstrates the real strength of the book, which is quick to identify the characteristics and/or deficiencies that define a particular director’s vision. Of Lucas’s first foray into SF he writes: ‘[THX] is an exceptional work … governed by a cruel rigour that never slackens. But there’s no getting around the fact that it is a movie driven by an unfaltering respect for sound business sense’.
Lucas is one of ten directors featured (running from Altman to Spielberg, alphabetically and, arguably, artistically speaking) and there are enough well-turned phrases and moments of clarity in each chapter to suggest that Gilbey has really thought this through. Of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), he writes: ‘It’s a chamber piece visibly troubled by its own minimalism’ – a reference to Coppola’s inability to scale an intrinsically modest picture appropriately, always in thrall to an operatic gesture. He recognises that Duel (1971) ‘now feels almost puritanical in its devotion to concept’ – a ‘high concept’ movie before it had a name, and an approach that would increasingly come to limit Spielberg’s development as an artist, even as it was instrumental in announcing him as one. The quality of Gilbey’s writing and his transparent affection for the film-makers (if not all the films) is what raises this tome above a collection of extended profiles into a book with an argument to prosecute.
The argument is weakened, slightly, by the inclusion of a short chapter on Stanley Kubrick, which Gilbey begins defensively by justifying why such a non-Hollywood director (in so many senses) should be featured. While it’s always nice to read something thoughtful on Kubrick, his presence alongside Altman, Allen and De Palma only further highlights his dislocation from what was going on in American cinema at the same time as he was filming Barry Lyndon (1975) in natural candlelight in an English field. Better, I’d have thought, to include a chapter on Polanski (whose name crops up more than once). He may not be an American by birth but, unlike Kubrick, he was very much part of the rebirth of American cinema in the 1970s. Perhaps this would have meant straying too far into Biskind territory, but Gilbey resists this in his chapter on Scorsese, for which he offers many insights into New York, New York (1977) and The Last Waltz (1978) without discussing, as Biskind pruriently reveals, that during this period Scorsese’s cocaine addiction was such that he was admitted to hospital bleeding from every orifice and near death.
So, notwithstanding the publisher’s shocking treatment of the photographs that preface each chapter (the Barry Lyndon reproduction will have Stanley turning in his grave), It Don’t Worry Me is a fine and potentially important book, especially if it leads to a more mature discussion of the movies of the period.
But that always assumes we can see these movies. A reference source I consulted (perversely, Gilbey’s book includes no filmography) listed 17 fiction or documentary films directed by Jonathan Demme (not including his latest, The Truth About Charlie); yet a quick search on Amazon.co.uk revealed that only 6 are available on DVD in the UK, not one of them earlier than 1986’s Something Wild. Demme has won a best director and best picture Oscar and all of his work has been produced during the last 30 years, but the vast majority of us are denied access to two-thirds of his work. As with Demme, so Altman. It’s easy enough to get hold of recent minor work such as Cookie’s Fortune (1999) or The Gingerbread Man (1998 – who would want to buy this?) – but Nashville (1975), The Long Goodbye (1973) or Thieves Like Us (1974)? Forget it. The supposed democratisation of film via ‘home entertainment’ has, if anything, diminished our access to genuine classics by hastening the decline of the repertory circuit. Gilbey begins his book by reminiscing about an Altman triple bill he enjoyed at a London rep cinema in the late 1980s, which he describes as ‘the best £5 I’ve ever spent’. Such priceless moments are increasingly rare. Now that does worry me.